Two weeks before its theatrical release, Pixar's 10th feature film, Up, shaped up to be yet another in a long string of hits. Thanks to an early press tour and a headlining spot at the Cannes Film Festival, critics had an earlier-than-usual peek at the film about an old man's adventure with a lonely boy after his house floats to South America on a bunch of balloons, and reactions so far have been glowing. Of the 20 critiques posted to date at RottenTomatoes.com, a website that averages the reviews of professional film critics across the country, all are positive.
That's quite an achievement for any mainstream release, but it has become par for the course for Pixar, the animation film studio that has managed not only to rack up big box-office numbers with movies like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles, but also near-unanimous critical acclaim. During last year's Oscar season, for example, writers at New York magazine and Variety expressed the opinion that Wall•E, which won for best animated feature, deserved a best picture nomination as well.
Yet there's something about the studio's creations that make Wall Street uncomfortable. The New York Times reported on April 5 that investors and toy merchandisers are "griping" about Up in the same way they did with Wall•E and Ratatouille, fearing that the film's artistic excellence will end up costing it in commercial appeal.
Pete Docter, writer and director of Up as well as previous Pixar hit Monster's Inc., says he's come to expect this kind of reaction. "We hear it on almost every movie. We heard it with Nemo. On our first movie, Toy Story, which was a movie about toys, we had investors tell us, 'We see no marketing possibilities with this movie.'"
That doesn't mean that he and his fellow filmmakers at Pixar don't take their obligation to investors seriously. Rather, Docter says they believe that telling the best stories they can is a better way of ensuring a good financial return than mimicking the content that worked for other animated releases. "What makes people want to buy stuff is that they like the story and the characters. The dolls are like a souvenir of the movie, so if you like the movie, you'll want a souvenir, and if you don't, then you won't. Our job as far as merchandising goes is to make the characters in the movie likeable. I look at the character of Carl [the old man] and think, 'Who doesn't want an action figure of an old guy like that?'"
Docter also believes investors' demand that animators bow to pop-culture trends is hurting the quality of animated films in general. "We're so bombarded now by our tabloid culture, and it's like, 'Please, give me a break.' That's just not the style that I've ever been after. I grew up loving the old Disney movies like Bambi and Dumbo-there's just such a charm and grace about those films, and I like to think Pixar picked up where they left off. My dad took me to see Snow White, and there were no crazy gags in it. But there were laughs and heart, and that's what makes it appeal to generation after generation. Those are the kinds of films we want to make, so we [at Pixar] don't approach the story looking for ways to insert pop culture references or crass jokes.
"What Pixar does do, says Docter, is treat animation as a medium rather than genre, which allows for more emotionally developed stories than are typically aimed at kids today. He admits that Up's major themes-the pain children experience as a result of divorce and the isolation the elderly can go through after losing a spouse-are more than a little unusual for a medium that tends to rely on more generic messages like "learn to be yourself." But he says his own and the studio's interest in making movies that connect with viewers on a real level demands it.
"We're not necessarily trying to make a comment on anything with our movies about rats or fish other than trying to reflect for the audience a little bit of their own life. And [those themes] seemed like a way to do that with this movie. We came up with the character of Carl so we could tell a story about going through a great loss and learning to reconnect with the world. And in that same breath, we wanted the character of Russell [the boy] to have a hole in his life that Carl could help fill so that the audience would experience them going from broken people who become more whole through their relationship with one another. So the divorce thing came about because of that, but it's also something you see a lot of in the world today. Whether they're divorced or just busy, a lot of parents have a lack of connection with their kids, and it's something that's become common in the world, and it felt truthful."
It is a story's ability to draw people into common experience that Docter, who is like his Pixar colleague Andrew Stanton a Christian, says best allows him to exercise his faith in his work. "There's something of the divine in the way we respond to stories and how we're created as people-that we're so driven by relationship that even when we know we're just looking at a bunch of drawings, we still connect emotionally. In making these worlds I feel closer to God through working out the details of my creation as He must have worked out the details of His creation. Before I wrote out the character of Carl, I thought about his life story-where he came from and what went into to making him who he is so he would feel as rich and real as he possibly could. And that seems a bit like God with us-I know everything about him, and took great joy in making him."
In the first 10 minutes of its latest release, Up, Pixar demonstrates why it has gained a reputation as a studio of unequalled integrity and originality. In that short span, the audience is treated to the meeting, marriage, and parting of Carl and Ellie Fredricksen, a pair of wide-eyed kids who trade the fantasy of life in the jungle for a more domestic, but no less interesting dream. With minimal dialogue, Carl (Ed Asner) and Ellie make us laugh and break our hearts at their experiences of love and loss.
From this montage, Up picks up with the rest of Carl's story. Left without his lifelong partner, Carl grows more cantankerous and more isolated until the day he decides to chuck civilization entirely and pursue the adventure he and Ellie once envisioned as kids. He soon finds, though, thanks to a young stowaway named Russell (Jordan Nagai), that civilization still has need of him, and he has the opportunity to fulfill more than one of Ellie's dreams.
One of the boldest aspects of Up, besides featuring a 78-year-old main character, is the lovely portrayal it offers of marriage. Countless animated films include a bride being caught up by a handsome prince, but few portray an ongoing commitment and love that deepens over years.
Heavy stuff for a kids' flick? Perhaps, but writer/director Pete Docter fills it with such hilarious characters and breathtaking artwork, the kids won't even notice. What parents will notice is that as funny as Up is-and it is often uproariously funny-its laughs flow from the interactions of the characters, not from adult-oriented, tacked-in jokes.
Without cynicism, without the hottest stars (unless you consider Ed Asner and Christopher Plummer hot stars), and without snarky, inappropriate humor, Up entertains kids and pulls on grownup heartstrings.